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Although Bea FitzGerald, 66, first heard the call as a young woman, she pushed it aside to raise her seven children. After her husband left in 1968, she put herself through school and supported her family as a registered nurse. Once her children were grown, the call grew louder. She obtained an annulment, joined the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, based in Louisville, Ky., and, at 51, became one of the growing number of so-called Sister Moms. While widowed or divorced women with grown children have long entered religious life, Sister Moms in the U.S. are now establishing a distinct identity for themselves. Spurred by a dissertation project for her Ed.D. at Spalding University, FitzGerald tracked down 125 of them in 98 religious communities around the country. In the 1990s, she began an annual conference at which the women bond over such unique experiences as telling their children about their choice ("98% are supportive," says FitzGerald).
Nuns of all ages at convents in the U.S. say modern technology is helping them give the world--and prospective applicants--a more realistic picture of their lives. "There are people out there who wonder what being a nun is like," says Sister Julie Vieira, 36. "These are people who were exposed to stereotypes of nuns and don't understand how we really live." So last summer Vieira began a blog titled A Nun's Life, in which she has chronicled her days as a sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and also a conventional-dressing, apartment-dwelling, master's degree--holding production coordinator at the Loyola Press, a Catholic publisher in Chicago. "Being a nun has not always been my lifelong goal," she writes in one entry. "The whole 'nun' thing kind of snuck up on me when I wasn't paying much attention ... I can't tell you how many times I've been called 'Sister Julie' that it doesn't jolt me or make me look around and wonder who they are talking about."
Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, vocation director at the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, credits e-mail to some extent with what can only be described as her order's astonishing growth. Founded in 1997 as an offshoot of a large convent, the Sisters now have 73 members with an average age of 24. In 2006, 15 women entered as postulants. Next August, more than 20 women are scheduled to join them. The order is fund raising for a new convent for them to live in. "We cannot build fast enough. It's incredible," says Bogdanowicz, 50.
The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, whose average age is 70, are seeking a similar youth infusion. The order, based in Mantiowac, Wis., hired a marketing company from nearby Milwaukee to hold focus groups on college campuses around the state. The marketers then launched a website featuring a blog written by the nuns, along with a slickly produced podcast about a young nun joining the order.
There's also a downloadable song of the month donated by a Christian artist, in response to the focus groups' revelation that "music was one of the highest ways to communicate with" young people, says vocation director Sister Julie Ann Sheahan. Thus the order's radio and TV ads feature a theme song based on a Franciscan hymn. The tune is also available on the website as a ringtone. Its title: Called to Be.
Read profiles of new nuns and link to their blogs and websites at time.com